On Friday, the NCAA put a bull's eye on the back of the Penn State football program.
In a letter to the president of the university, the NCAA said they were examining issues related to institutional control and ethical conduct stemming from the university's handling of a child sex abuse scandal in which a former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, is alleged to have sexually abused eight boys in 15 years.
Even if Sandusky is found not guilty of the sexual misconduct charges against him, there is already credible evidence that senior Penn State officials were engaged in a cover up of the allegations for nearly a decade. And that may be enough to put the football program out of business.
That is, unless the NCAA moves to reform what many perceive to be an ineffective and grossly unfair system of enforcement.
The most serious penalties levied against a football program in recent memory occurred at my alma mater, the University of Southern California. The school was tagged with the dreaded "lack of institutional control" tag when former Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush, was found guilty of accepting improper gifts, including a rent-free house for his parents, a tricked-out car and a few trips seven years ago. The NCAA penalty: a two-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships (levied against the current group of players).
The allegations at Penn State are far more serious in comparison.
The most damaging aspect of this sordid story is that there is no evidence that law enforcement was notified of an alleged incident in 2002, in which assistant coach Mike McQueary told a grand jury that he saw Sandusky sodomizing a young boy in the locker room shower. McQueary claims he told the head coach, the athletic director and the vice president in charge of campus police. All three -- and the former president of Penn State -- now claim that they thought a naked Sandusky was only "horsing around" in the shower with a naked little boy.
Leaving aside the issue of how anyone can confuse sodomy with horsing around, some of these same Penn State officials had knowledge of a previous alleged incident involving Sandusky, a young boy, nudity and a shower in 1998. The incident was investigated by campus police but never prosecuted.
Despite the past allegations, none of the individuals with responsibility for overseeing the Penn State football team or athletic program appear to have reported the alleged 2002 incident to the police. Considering what happened at USC, is there any other penalty for the NCAA to enforce against the Penn State football program but the so-called death penalty?
The answer might very well be "yes." But there's a catch: the NCAA will have to examine its own system of compliance and implement a series of long-over due reforms.
The current NCAA infraction process is the definition of unsportsmanlike conduct. It often penalizes teams and programs that had nothing to do with the rules violations. Usually, that's because the offending player is out of reach of the NCAA cops, having escaped to the safe haven of a professional sports league.
As a first step, the NCAA should convince the professional sports leagues to require all college athletes to sign a statement attesting to the fact that they are athletes in "good standing" at their respective schools prior to turning pro.
If a player is found to be in violation of this signed pledge, even several years later, then he should be immediately declared ineligible and forced to apply for reinstatement by his league. Fines, suspensions (for regular and postseason play) and restitution where appropriate (of goods accepted and even the value of his scholarship) should all be considered. This will punish the guilty, not create more victims. And it will probably do more to deter gross violations of the rules in the college game than anything being done now.
Of course, the same sanctions should apply to college coaches and administrators -- including clawback of salaries and the monetary value of other perks -- when they run afoul of the rules.
To be sure, there are those who will disagree, saying that athletes cannot be penalized in the pro leagues for breaking the rules in the college game. But why should athletes be subject to different rules than the rest of us? If you lie on your resume and your current employer finds out then you won't be sitting on the sidelines of the corporate picnic, you'll be fired. Besides, the NFL and NBA already have entrance requirements for college players, including waiting periods. Just ask Maurice Clarett and Michael Williams.
Second, to reduce low-level rules violations, the NCAA must allow schools to provide for the full cost of attendance so that athletes are not forced (or tempted, depending on your point of view) to sell memorabilia or accept free meals to meet basic needs or some minimum standard of living. At USC, Athletic Director Pat Haden did the math. He concluded that on average, scholarship athletes (making everyone else rich) have a budget of $150 per month for food and spending money. Could you survive on that? If the NCAA refuses to allow the value of a scholarship to rise to the full cost of attendance, then they should use some of the television money generated by their student-athletes to establish an endowment to supply need-based grants and no-interest loans to those in need.
Third, the NCAA needs to get out of the "gotcha!" business and use its compliance resources more appropriately. It should first and foremost work with the conferences and schools to be sure that everyone understands the rules. It should demonstrate appropriate flexibility in granting waivers in hardship cases or misunderstandings. It should use its resources to uncover willful violations of the rules in something approaching real time. Most importantly, it must be an example of fairness, good sportsmanship and ethical conduct and develop mechanisms to penalize only those individuals who broke the rules.
It's the right thing to do. Just ask the football players at USC and Penn State.